10 Iyyar 5774
Until I discovered Judaism, I was an atheist.
I had my reasons for that, and for a long time they seemed like very good and valid reasons. Please note: the order I’m listing them in has nothing to do with their importance. This isn’t a rank-ordered list; it’s just a list of the various reasons I had for not believing in G-d.
One reason was that G-d had been represented to me as a stern, angry taskmaster for most of my childhood and adolescence. My sole idea of G-d for years and years was “He will punish you; He’s just waiting for you to mess up so He can smack you down” – G-d as taskmaster, prison guard, and slave driver, not G-d as loving parent or friend. (In my more cynical moments I’ve said to friends “So you believe in a ‘loving parent’ that sets you up to fail and then punishes you for failing? Not interested!”) I had the terrible experience of hearing a hymn when I was about nine that went “Watching you, watching you, there’s an all-seeing Eye watching you” that conjured up a nightmare vision of a disembodied eye watching everything I did and finding it unacceptable. The verses that command us to “Fear G-d” were translated in my Catholic and Christian backgrounds as “be terrified of G-d; you must be perfect or you will feel His wrath, and if you are not perfect He will turn away from you until you are.” It was not a good message, and no amount of “G-d is love” could counteract it because the emphasis was on being afraid first.
My partner was also raised Catholic, but he doesn’t remember this being the message in his church. It doesn’t matter. I do. And it was very, very hard to let go of that fear (and the anger it produced). For a long time, I felt that if such a G-d did exist, it was my bounden duty to deny its existence, because the alternative was horrifying.
I also got that message at home – not about G-d specifically, but about authority figures more generally. My mother has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you’ve never lived with a person with a personality disorder, you’re luckier than you know. Living with a narcissistic parent is like living with a time bomb. If you read the time bomb’s mind well enough and are as perfect as you can be, you might avoid abuse, sometimes. My mother’s narcissistic abuse installed a very deep need to understand authority figures so that they wouldn’t hurt me. When I didn’t read her mind, abuse was the logical outcome. So logically, if G-d is an authority figure, he expects you to read his mind and be perfect and never make a mistake, and if you do, you should logically expect to be punished.
In essence, I had the image of G-d as a parent with severe NPD.
It should be pretty clear why I was so afraid of G-d, nu?
Second, because of the fear, I got angry. Not only was I angry with G-d for being (as I saw it) a divine bully, but for a number of other reasons too. I was bullied from second grade onwards, and G-d never seemed to do anything about it no matter how hard I prayed. I was molested as a very young child by my grandfather, and G-d, as far as I could see, didn’t do anything about that either. My mother was emotionally abusive. My father, who was a good and godly man, died when he was just past his 63rd birthday, far too young. I had been told to believe that the world was just, where bad things only happened to bad people, and yet the world was not working the way I had been told it was supposed to. (My Sunday School classes never included Job, for some reason.) I wasn’t sure if I was a bad person, but I knew for certain that my father was a good person, and yet bad things happened to him.
It’s the classic thing that everyone wrestles with, right? Why do bad things happen to good people if there is a loving G-d? I found meaning in the book Zulu Heart by Steven Barnes, where a character who had been forcibly enslaved said to his former master: “If I believed in G-d, I would hate him.”
And yes, I did hate him for a while. I hated him because no matter how much I hurt, and no matter what bad things happened to me, he didn’t seem to be there for me at all.
Another reason that I turned to atheism was that I was a “gifted” child. That meant, in the 1970s, that I was praised mainly for getting the right answer. For understanding. For comprehending. For being able to explain everything. And that became a part of how I perceived myself: I was a good kid because when asked, I always had the answer and I got praise for it. It was one of the few times I could count on getting approval from my mother, so being able to understand and explain, to have the right answer, became an obsession for me.
So imagine what it was like when I ran into something I couldn’t explain – like G-d.
It wasn’t just upsetting. It was soul-destroying. And I found it offensive that there was anything that I could not explain. That was my job, you see – to explain and comprehend. So I think my first step towards atheism was saying “If I can’t understand and explain it, then it must not be real.”
As an autistic and an abuse survivor, logic and order are very important to me. They’re soothing. They help me cope with a very chaotic world. So for many years, I demanded logical causes and physical evidence for everything, or I simply wouldn’t believe it. Feelings were not logical. Therefore, they couldn’t be trusted.
Having been raised by a narcissistic mother, I had had my ability to trust my own feelings pretty much beaten out of me by the time I was six or seven years old. How I felt did not matter. It was how she felt that mattered. My job was to feel whatever she told me to feel, and to believe whatever she said, not to trust my own feelings. If you haven’t dealt with someone who has a personality disorder, it may be difficult to believe how pervasive this is. But since I couldn’t trust my feelings, any time that G-d might have tried to speak to me, I was essentially deaf.
I was all about the empirical, and I shunned the experiential.
So when I found out about the scientific method, I was enthralled. Logic! Orderliness! It made sense! Here was something where cause and effect were actually linked, unlike my life, where random bad things happened with no discernible cause. It was comprehensible. It made sense. I could actually categorize what was going on and it would still be there, dependable, when I got back. It was the best tool I’d ever found for understanding the world. I began to perceive anything I couldn’t explain with that tool as something offensive – including G-d. It didn’t occur to me that you can’t use the same tool for all jobs. I was trying to shoehorn G-d – who cannot be experienced logically – into something that could be analyzed scientifically.
Probably due to the abuse, I have a deep need for justice. When people wouldn’t follow the rules, it made me mad. When they’d get away with not following the rules, it made me enraged. I have a deep commitment to doing the right thing, but I also have a deep commitment to following the rules if the rules seem to match what is good and right and proper. I loved the law, because it seemed so orderly and logical.
I’m a social scientist these days, and one of the things I study is law and how the law works. More and more I’m finding that all the things I thought were logical and straightforward are not. But during my atheist phase, I demanded actual, physical evidence of G-d, and when nobody provided it, I mocked their beliefs. (Yes, I was one of those atheists – every bit as fundamentalist as any haredi Jew or evangelical Christian. And I’m not proud of it, and I know I’m going to have a lot of people to make amends to when Yom Kippur rolls around in the fall.) At thirteen, I walked away from Catholic confirmation classes when I realized how silly it all sounded to me. Later in life I went through confirmation classes and confirmation to make my then-spouse happy, but on the day it happened I didn’t feel anything beyond “this is so fake, there’s nothing there.”
So here I am, a person who demands logical and physical evidence and can’t seem to find any for G-d, who has been conditioned to never trust his own feelings and who believes the most important thing is to have the right answer, who is angry for the unjust and undeserved pain he experienced, and is still shying away from G-d due to the fear he was told to have. I was very angry with G-d for a long time, especially after my father died, and felt that I could either hate G-d, or I could stop believing in Him. So I stopped believing in Him for a while. It seemed the lesser of two evils.
Then one day earlier this year, everything shifted. If you asked me exactly how, I couldn’t tell you, but I used this joke as a parable to explain it when I first joined a board for converts last month:
There’s a man whose town is going to be flooded. He listens to the radio and watches the TV, and says to his friends “It’s okay. I’m a religious man. I pray. G-d won’t let anything happen to me.” Well, the flood comes, and a guy comes by in a rowboat and shouts for him to get in, but the religious man says “It’s okay, I pray. G-d will save me.” Then as he’s standing on his roof peak, a guy in a helicopter lowers a ladder and shouts for him to get on, but the religious man shouts back that he’s safe, because he prays and G-d will save him.
Of course, he drowns. When he arrives at the Pearly Gates he demands an audience with G-d. He says “L-rd, I’m a devout man. A religious man. I pray to You every day. I tithe. I do good works in Your name. Why didn’t you save me?” And the Lord looks at him and says “I sent you a radio report, a TV report, a rowboat and a helicopter – what the heck are you doing here??”
The specific nature of the rowboats and helicopters I’ve been seeing aren’t important. What’s important is that I started seeing them, and I stopped judging everything by the scientific yardstick. As I discovered that my mother was a narcissistic personality and what that meant about my difficulty in trusting my feelings, I began to make room in my life for letting my feelings guide me. I stopped arguing and shouting and started listening.
At the same time, I was discussing G-d and religion with people I care about, including both of my partners. It’s something I’ve done every spring, pretty much, but this year was different. This year I was talking not just about the Christian G-d, but the idea of G-d. A lot of the things I’d been conditioned to believe by my upbringing don’t make any sense in Judaism, and my Jewish best friend’s explanations of how G-d is not like that in Judaism were confusing to me. I had to know more about this G-d who didn’t bully his children, so I started researching Judaism on my own, instead of going back over liberal Christian theologians’ books again.
That’s when I discovered that Judaism fit my own ethic of “do right by others.” Tikkun olam – that was a revelation. The idea that it wasn’t about the afterlife but about the now-life, the present life, that mattered. The idea that actions were more important than professions of faith, because action IS a profession of faith. That you can argue with G-d and he won’t send the giant lightning bolt to incinerate you for daring to say “That wasn’t cool, Adonai.” These discoveries were revelatory. Absolutely revelatory. I walked around in a stunned daze for a while after I began to realize that Judaism was where I belonged.
And here’s the main thing that finally came across to me. The thing I had struggled with for at least two decades. Judaism provided me with an answer I had been needing and didn’t know I needed.
That answer is this: You can’t comprehend G-d.
You’re also not expected to comprehend G-d.
He doesn’t expect you to “get” him. When asked his name, he told Moses “I am that I am.” That’s saying “I’m not something you can comprehend, and that’s okay. Simply accept that that’s what I am.” He doesn’t expect you to read his mind. If he did, he wouldn’t have given us the Torah. And it stands to reason that if he doesn’t expect you to read his mind, he also doesn’t expect you to be perfect.
That was the most stunning discovery I had, and it is the one that has me shaking my head in wonder every time it occurs to me.
G-d isn’t like my mother. He’s like my father. He isn’t a divine bully. He’s a bedrock.
When I wrote about this shift in my perceptions on a support board for people with personality-disordered parents, a well-meaning Christian acquaintance asked me in private message, “But don’t you think you need to find out the facts about exactly what G-d is and what he wants?”
My answer was something along the lines of: “Asking about the truth or falsehood of G-d is like asking about the truth or falsehood of the sun. He’s there. That’s it. Most Talmudic and rabbinical scholars don’t debate about the “facts about who he is.” They do, however, do a lot of debating and arguing about what he wants us to do, based on the Torah and the Talmud.”
As a follow-up question she wanted to know how I was going to address the fact that G-d is divine and holy and that we are not? My response was: “By realizing that G-d does not demand perfection. And he does not set us up with nebulous or unclear requirements in order to be good enough and then punish us when we can’t read his mind. The Torah actually goes into some detail about what G-d expects: obey his commandments and perform his mitzvot (good deeds). What matters to G-d is what we do here on earth, not what happens afterwards.”
So what brought me out of atheism? Understanding that there are some things that it’s okay not to understand. Understanding that there’s a place for people who want to understand more without having to worry about being punished for not understanding it.
Folks, that’s a revelation I never expected to have.